Tuesday, 31 December 2019

Part 11 AR FF : "and then she said it"

part 11. Not yet !

Sitting in the cab, awaiting my destination, I felt weird in a positive sense. Never in my life did I imagine I would come across something like this. It was as if tiny bubbles of happiness were being created in my heart on their own accord. Something was changing. But I cared less for I knew I was happy. If not a little more than just happy. I was excited and something like content. It had been ages since I felt something like this.

"Saab, we have reached." The cab driver shook me when I didn't respond to him. He had a confused look on his face when I looked at him. I put up a straight face and opened the door, only to realize that mom and Riddhima, both would be at the college. Thinking otherwise, I shut the door again and settled in the seat. I asked the driver to take me to the college.

Leaning back on the seat, I closed my eyes and sighed. The first thing that flashed in my brain was Riddhima. It was strange the way she had come into our lives. Especially into my life. And the events that followed the last time I had been in Bangalore were a kind of bizarre. And so were the feelings of mine towards her. They had been so unpredictable and confused. But she just walked into my thoughts effortlessly, sometimes scaring me but sometimes just making me smile.



The last three months had been immensely restless for me. Now that I had made my decision, I understood where that restlessness had come from. I had my own regrets of leaving Riddhima just like that back then. I knew I had been impulsive but back then I had my reasons. Marrying an already married lady was nothing simple. Mom had been firm on her decision but back then I was confused and moreover hurt that mom hadn't told me about that. In any other case I would have just shelved the idea out of my system. But it being Riddhima, something held me back. In the last few days, neither did I have the courage to step head nor did I have the heart to step back.

But after discussing it with Rahul, I was able to make sense of her's as well as my behavior. Now that I was clear in my intentions, I couldn't help but agree with Rahul. Very well aware of Riddhima, I should have tried to understand the truth that was buried in her every word. Had I given her words at the airport a thought, it wouldn't have been this messy.

But what still kept me wondering was the fact that made me take a decision. I was sure of one thing. My decision to marry her was not out of sympathy for her after coming to know about her past. True, I had felt bad for her. But that's not it. It was something else. A mere attraction towards her wouldn't compel me to go ahead with such a huge responsibility in my life. It was something more than just an attraction ' be it physical or emotional. It was something deeper, something intense. But I didn't complain. I just wanted to wait and feel what it was.  But I knew where it could lead now.

I am neither a teen nor a young adult to just arrive at a conclusion that it was love. For me, love meant something pure which we can only feel. It was too early for me to examine if I was in love with Riddhima, because I knew I am not, yet. May be I was just in the path of falling for her. That thought made my heart do a flip. Whatever it might be, I felt good. That was what it mattered for me.

I was snapped out of my thoughts when the car came to an abrupt halt. I looked out of window only to realize that I had reached the college. I paid the driver and stepped out. I was granted the leave of only a day, so I didn't get any clothes. A I made my way towards Riddhima's block, my heart paced slightly faster.

I had conveniently decided to marry Riddhima, but what now? What should I speak to her? Or to mom for the matter of fact? Coming to Riddhima, I better be spontaneous because that's what worked for me in the past. But what should I tell mom, or rather how should I tell her?

The receptionist passed me a close-up smile when I walked towards her. I couldn't help but grin at her when her eyes turned dreamy looking at me. I was sure she had been already fantasizing about me. Well, that's the effect I had on the opposite sex. That's to my mom for my features and dad for my dimple. Only if I had the same effect on Riddhima! I sighed. I guess she was the only one who hadn't showed any signs at me.

"Hie, can I meet Prof. Raji Mallik?" I asked her leaning onto the desk, passing her one of my dimpled smile. I knew it was not a visiting time, nor was I visiting officially as a HR on my company. So to get my work done, why not take advantage of my physical appearance.

"May I please know who you are?" She asked me in a sugary tone.

"I am her son, Armaan Mallik." I replied in the same tone. Well, little flirting is harmless, isn't it? "It's a bit personal emergency." I added.

"Oh, okay! Let me check if she is in any of the lectures." She told me checking the schedule of the professors. "Ma'm is free now. Please wait in the visiting room sir, while I inform her of you." She said after a minute.

"Thank you." I thanked her and walked towards the visiting room.

As soon as I entered the room, I let my brain work on my script to talk to mom. But before my mind could prepare anything, I heard mom's voice.

"Armaan?" By the look on her face I knew she wasn't expecting me anywhere soon.

"Hie mom." I wished her and hugged her. But she was too surprised to respond back properly.

"What are you doing here, all of a sudden?" She asked me as I guided her towards the sofa. I made her sit and sat opposite her.

"Mom, I am here with a proposal." I told her and her eyes grew wide. "Will you agree now if I want to marry Riddhima?" I asked her straight away.

"Huh?" She stared at me bewildered. "Are you serious?" She asked. "Because I don't want to make a fool of myself and Riddhima once again." Her tone was soft, but I knew the meaning of its softness.

"I am sorry for that mom, but now I am sure of my decision. So tell me, will you agree?"

"What made you come back Armaan?" She questioned.

"Riddhima." I admitted. "She came to meet me at the airport that day when I left for Hyderabad."

"She did?" She asked amused at that piece of information. "Oh I guess that's the reason why she ran out of my cabin when I told her you were leaving." She recalled. "What did she say?" She probed further.

"She-" I swallowed my words realizing what I had to say. I wasn't comfortable sharing our private moment with mom. "She- she just came to say that- she just said good bye." I stammered looking away.

"Is it?" Mom raised her brow, smiling at me and I knew she had caught me.

"Mom!" I whined and sat beside her. "I had been thinking about her for the last three months involuntarily. Rahul talked to me about her past and I realized I regret my decision back then." I said leaning my head onto her shoulder.

"So?" She asked again.

"So what?" I looked at her. "I want to marry her. And this time I am sure." Mom just smiled at me.

"Talk to her first." She replied. "But don't hurt her." She added.

"This time, I won't." I smiled at her. "How is she?" I asked her for the first time in the last three months.

"You will get to know about it when you meet her." She answered. "In ten minutes, they'll have lunch break. Meet her then." She added.

"Are you happy now?" I asked.

"Riddhima is the best you could get." She replied smiling.

"I love you mom." I kissed her cheek and got up. "I'll go and meet Riddhima."

"Armaan?" She stopped me. "Are you in love with Riddhima too?" She asked smiling, while I stared at her perplexed for moment not expecting that.

"Not yet!" I replied smiling back at her and left the room.

--------

Amidst a few bunches of girls in the canteen I spotted Riddhima without much difficulty. That's because of her attire precisely! She was the only girl who wears a cotton chudidar among the girls of the college, who prefer mini-skirts or hip hugging jeans. That attire of hers adds a whole new dimension of dignity to her persona.

Riddhima walked with her class mates to an empty table and they all settled in the chairs available. I chose to stand far off and observe her for a while. Her friends had been busy in talking; I guess gossiping. But she just put her laptop on the desk and rested her cheek on it and stared into space, not interested in their banter. As I observed her closely, she looked tired and worn out and may be leaner than the last time I had seen her. Or maybe I felt so as I saw her after a long duration.

After a couple of moments she got up and sat at the other table which was isolated. She placed her laptop on the floor beside her chair and stared at the empty chair beside her. I was amused at her action. Who on earth keeps staring at an empty chair?

Taking a deep breath, I walked closer to her table but she didn't seem to notice me. She was still looking at the chair. When I was about to call her, something was lit in my brain. I looked around the canteen and tried to recall. And the realization brought a smile to my lips. She did miss me after all; for she sat at the same table we sat on the day of her campus hiring- my first day at Bangalore when I had dropped her to the college. And the chair she was staring was the exact place when I sat that day while waiting for mom.

That action of hers made me wonder about Rahul's words that she might like me. That mere thought filled my heart with unknown warmth. But then immediately popped up the question, why doesn't she say it? The answer was just as simple as that; she was Riddhima. May be her past held her back from showing her feelings towards me. May be we both were along the same path, trying to understand what we feel for each other. If so, then we had a long life ahead of us to understand ourselves. May be that path would fill our lives with beautiful moments that we would cherish forever.

"Hey Riddhima?" I called out for her with a little more than just cheerful voice which startled her.

She looked around her frantically and the moment her eyes landed on me, she was more than surprised. I stood still letting my presence sink into her. After a couple of moments, her face broke out into a bright smile. She took a step towards me and then stopped abruptly. The smile on her face disappeared and something else took its place; something like despair. But the she forced a fake smile and headed towards me. By now, I could clearly differentiate between her genuine smile and a fake one. She should have known that. Nevertheless, the emotions depicted by her facial features amused me. Didn't I say she had an expressive face with equally expressive eyes?

"Hie Armaan." She greeted me when she stood infront of me. But her voice was painfully low. "What are you doing here? Aunty is in lecture I guess."

"I came to meet you." I replied, my voice calm.

"Me?" She was puzzled. "I-" Before she could complete, a girl came and stood by her staring at me strangely.

"Any problem Riddhima? Do you know him?" She asked Riddhima skeptically. Her voice was intimidating and so was her attire; something like phoolan devi- khaki colour fitted shirt and a pant.

"No. nothing Devi." Riddhima answered that girl. And I chuckled at how my thought turned out to be right. May be her first name was phoolan. "He is Armaan Mallik." She said and I waited to see how she would introduce me. I smiled inwardly remembering the last time she tried introducing me. That had been hilarious. And that smile of mine faded away as I recalled the events that followed that day. "He- He is- my-" She fumbled.

"Hie, I am Riddhima's fianc." I did the honors myself. I didn't know what made me say so. And Devi's mouth fell open and so did Riddhima's. I couldn't help my grin at their faces.

"Oh my God Riddhima, you were engaged!" The girl exclaimed and hugged her tight. And a couple of other girls joined us. All the while I felt Riddhima's eyes on me, questioning my actions. I just smiled at her.

"Is that why you appeared so lost for the past couple of weeks?" Someone asked her and Riddhima averted her gaze from me. And the grin was back on my face.

"Guys, please excuse us for a minute." Riddhima pulled me by my sleeve away from her friends, while her friends giggled behind us.

"Invite us for the wedding!" One of them shouted at us.

"Sure thing!" I responded turning my head towards them and waved at them while Riddhima pulled me to the indoor shuttle stadium beside the canteen.

When she left me and stood infront of me, I found her eyes moist. "What happened Riddhima?" I asked her wary of tears in her eyes.

"I am already a laughing stock amidst them. Why do you want to make more fun of me?" She asked, her voice depicting hurt and pain. But her words stunned me. Is that what she had been thinking of me? That I would make fun of her?

"Riddhima, do you think I was making fun of you?" I questioned her, taking a step towards her, but she stepped back when I raised my hand to touch her. That stung my heart. May be she had lost that trust in me.

"Then what were you doing there?" She asked, her voice muffled as she leaned back on the wall of the stadium.

"I meant what I said, Riddhima." I said softly taking a step ahead towards her. And her eyes were filled with tears fast.

"You didn't want to marry me. You would never want to." Her voice was a hoarse whisper. A big fat tear slipped out of her eye and rolled down her cheek.

"I never said that to you, did I?" I asked back, taking another step towards her leaving a distance of one foot between us.

She shook her head negatively and a few tears made their way down her cheeks again. "You might just leave me again without a word when you come to know about something about my past." Her voice was broken.

I felt my gaze turning watery at her words. Ofcourse that was what I had done earlier. And I felt something pricking my heart. "Riddhima, I can't undo my actions in the past. I, myself, regret having done that. I never meant to hurt you. But I just needed time then." I said slowly trying to read the expressions on her face. "Can you trust me, again?"

"Armaan, I-" She tried to speak holding back her tears but in vain. "I was abandoned by my in-laws back then, because they were ashamed of the fact that I am an orphan." She spoke slowly and I let her. "Sohail couldn't ignore their taunts and pressure for long and he left me. Can you stand by me throughout all that? Because though I am used to rejection, I don't think I have any strength left to bear one more from you."

I heard her and assumed Sohail might be her ex-husband. But I felt sorry for her. And I also felt little happy somewhere. May be it was because of him leaving her that she came across our lives.

"You were an orphan Riddhima. Now I am ready to give you a family of your own. And I truly mean it." I whispered wiping her tears with my thumb while she just stared at me. I was happy she didn't yank my hand off her.

"Why do you want to marry me? Is it because aunty asked you for it?" She questioned back, her voice a little below whisper but I managed to hear.

"It's true that I thought about you in that prospect when mom asked me to think over it. But I wouldn't marry a person just for mom. I took the decision of marrying you now because I want to." I said uttering each and every syllable carefully looking into her eyes. "I realized I am attracted to you Riddhima- both physically and emotionally. And I like you. May be a little more than like but I really do." I didn't hesitate admitting my feelings because I wanted her to understand me. "Will you marry me?"

But I didn't get any response from her. And my heart sunk low with each passing second, the mere fear of rejection gripping my nerves badly, squeezing me out of breathe. And I wondered how Riddhima stood by this feeling every time. I admitted it to myself again; She was hell strong a woman.

I was snapped out of my thoughts when I felt her body against mine. Looking down I found her hugging me, her face against my chest and arms around my waist.

"I thought you would never come back." She mumbled into my chest and I also felt her warm tears soaking my shirt. She was also sniffing.

That brought a smile to my lips and I wrapped my arms around her. Like every time, this hug was different. It was warm and cozy but not quite physically intimate. It was just like assuring each other of our presence in the other's life. Something like an unsaid promise.

"I take it as a yes." I whispered into hers ear. "Because I am not used to rejection." I smiled and I was sure so did she.

She drew back immediately after a moment. I found her smiling and blushing looking down; like actually blushing with her cheeks turning slightly pink. It was the first time I had seen her blushing like this and I had to admit, she was beautiful. For the first time in my life, apart from my mom, I found a moment with another woman I would truly cherish.

----------

"Mom, I had barely slept" I drawled when mom shook me trying to wake me up. We returned home from the college at around 4 in the evening and I booked my return ticket for the midnight flight. After returning back, mom and Riddhima went to her room, probably to talk I guess. I let them be and planned on catching up on my dear sleep than I am going to miss tonight owing to my journey. To be frank, I had hardly slept for the last three months. Every time I closed my eyes, something or the other used to come infront of my eyes not letting me catch a wink. And at the sight of the bed in my room, I sighed happily. I know I can sleep peacefully now; for both my heart and mind are at peace too. So I jumped onto the bed immediately and I don't think it was much time before I dozed off.

"Get up Armaan." Mom hit my shoulder when I didn't budge. That made me sit on the bed though with my eyes partly closed.

"Mom, it's hardly two hours that I slept." I did a quick math glancing at the watch which said 6 pm. "Let me sleep na!" I whined and before I could fall back on the bed, she hit me again.

"Shashank wants to talk to you. He are waiting downstairs. Come fast else I'll send him upstairs." Mom was right on the target. Shashank uncle was the only person in my family who could scare the hell out of me, till now. So no quite interested in facing his lecture, I dragged myself to the washroom.

Coming downstairs, I found Shashank uncle and Padma aunty talking with mom, all of them seated on the sofa, while Musi was standing beside them. My eyes automatically darted across the living room searching for Riddhima. Muski raised her brow when she found me scanning the house. I smiled at her sheepishly and moved to the elders.

"Hie uncle." I greeted him. He smiled at me, hugged me and sat back on the sofa. "Hie aunty." I added but didn't get a response from her which was quite weird.

Right then Riddhima stepped out of the kitchen with a tray in her hand. I took the tray from her and placed it on the table infront of the sofa. "What happened to aunty? Why is she upset?" I whispered into her ear when she passed by me. But she just shrugged her shoulders and stood beside Muski.

"Oh, hie Muski." I said and hugged her. But she passed me a very big smile which wasn't a good indication for sure.

I raised my brows at my mom, asking her what was on my way. She shrugged her shoulders and smirked at me. So I pulled the bean bag that was at the side and was about to sit on it when,

"Wait Armaan." Uncle almost shouted and I jumped at his voice startled. I stared at him perplexed when he stood up. "Riddhima come here." He called for her and surprisingly his tone was equally stern. Riddhima came and stood beside me but only after stumbling on her way once.

"They look good together Padma, nahi?" He declared after a moment smiling at aunty and I drew my breath out. I thought mom exaggerated about Shashank uncle for the lack of humor but now I understood the truth underlying her words. He really had zero sense of humor. Who on earth remarks that statement in such a voice? And I was not alone, I felt Riddhima sigh too along with me.

"You decided to marry Riddhima but didn't tell me." Aunty whined at me. "And here I was still searching for potential brides for you." She looked at me accusingly while I mused at her. "However Riddhima would stand above all of them. I am happy for you both." She added patting our cheeks. I glanced sideways at Riddhima. She was smiling which automatically brought a smile to my lips.

When they settled back, I looked behind me and pulled the bean bag yet again to sat on it, but was interrupted again.

"Arre Armaanji, sit beside Riddhima na!" Muski giggled at me as I looked around to make sure she referred it to me. She made Riddhima sit on another sofa infront of them. "So this was the conspiracy that had happened behind my back, isn't it?" She remarked as I sat on the sofa beside Riddhima. "Oh, now I understand papa, that was why Riddhima appeared so lost for the last two months. She had missed Armaan already." Muski went and settled in between mom and uncle.

But her words caught my attention. Even Riddhima's friend said the same about Riddhima in the afternoon. And I almost grinned at that piece of information. But then why didn't she call me even once? I thought amused. But then neither did I call her.

"No Muski, nothing of that sort. I was just disturbed due to exams." Riddhima said slowly, shifting her body away from mine slightly, on the sofa. I looked at her and knew by the expression on her face that she was nervous.

I held her hand slowly and squeezed it gently. "Relax" I whispered in her ear before letting go of her hand. She immediately pulled her hands into her lap and looked down, which amused me. Where was that Riddhima who hugged me tight infront of a few hundreds of people in the airport? I couldn't help my smile.

Mom had been the lone spectator of our communication. She smiled at me when I looked up at her. I gave her a sheepish smile, partly out of embarrassment. She blinked at me assuringly and got up and made her way towards her room.

"So Armaan, when do you plan on getting married?" Uncle asked me out of blue and looked at him bewildered.

"Huh. Anytime I guess." I spoke on the spur. "I mean after Riddhima's exams or when she wanted to get married. I don't have any problem." I added hoping I didn't sound desperate. But somewhere deep down, I was desperate.

"Great! Our papers will be over by next weekend." Muskaan said excitedly. "You can get married then."

"Yeah?" Aunty smiled at Muski's excitement. "Then we have to call the Pandit and fix a date." She added joining Muski.

"Uncle, but-" Riddhima stood up. "You have to know something." She added and looked at me. I knew what was coming. So I stood beside her and held her hand assuring her of my support. "I was married already once before. But then he left me long back. I didn't had any contacts with them since then and-" Her voice quivered as she stopped. But her initiation made my heart swell. That only added to the respect I had towards her. I know it's quite painful to live the life with a troubled past. But the way she accepted it as her part was commendable.

"Riddhima, we know about that already. Raji told us." Uncle said softly running his hand over her head. "And when we accepted you into our family, it meant the whole of you. We love you for the person you are Riddhima. And that past of yours will never come in the way." He added.

"I-" Riddhima opened her mouth but then her voice didn't come out. "Thank you!" She whispered and few tears slipped out of her eyes. Aunty hugged her immediately rubbing her back, while I smiled at uncle thankfully.

"Now stop this emotional atyachaar. It doesn't go with the occasion." Muski butted in, charging up the atmosphere again. Riddhima drew back and stood beside aunty. I looked at her. She smiled at me. I smiled back at her. Mom came downstairs with a tray filled with something.

"Riddhima, come and sit beside Armaan" She told Riddhima and then made sit on the sofa with Riddhima beside me. Aunty took the tray from mom while Muski was ready with her camera that she brought out of nowhere.

"Mom, what's happening? I am not even in proper clothes." I whispered to mom, suddenly conscious of my attire. I was just in a T-shirt and a three-forth pant. Riddhima was in her usual chudidar but it was way more decent than mine.

"Ssh. Nothing's happening. Shut up and sit properly." Mom hushed me and signaled aunty to go ahead.

"Mom but-" I shut my mouth when aunty placed kumkum on my forehead. She then placed it on Riddhima's. Muski already started clicking pictures. I glared at her to stop but she giggled at me.

"Don't worry Armaan, your legs wouldn't come in the snaps. Promise." She chuckled at me and so did everyone out there.

Mom then passed to aunty, a saree with few dried fruits on it. I wondered what was happening silently. Riddhima got up suddenly when aunty offered the saree to her. Taking it as a custom, I followed her and stood up too.

"Aunty, why this?" Riddhima asked skeptically looking at mom.

"It's a shagun from us Riddhima. Something like roka. I don't know when this budhu would be back from Hyderabad. So thought of getting it done now, in his presence so we can go ahead with other rituals." Mom told her and made her sit again. I sat down too.

Aunty offered her the saree and she took her blessings. I bent down immediately to take aunty's blessings following Riddhima again, but inturn got a smack on my back from aunty. I glared at her while she patted my cheek and hugged me. Riddhima took blessings from mom and then uncle while they hugged me later. I sat down on the sofa, waiting for my present. I mean if Riddhima got one, I should get it too, shouldn't I? But then I frowned when mom took Riddhima to her room.

"What are you waiting for? Come let's have dinner." Muski pulled me up after a couple of moments.

"What? Don't I get a present? A new suit or a shirt?" I asked them, unfair at my loss.

"You would have, had you informed me of your sudden visit." Mom said coming downstairs with Riddhima giggling from her behind.

"Oh!" I sulked taking my seat at the dinner table.

"By the way, when are you leaving Armaan?" Uncle asked me and everyone looked at me awaiting my answer.

"Midnight flight" I replied. "I just got a day leave." Amidst the other's 'oh's, I noticed Riddhima's face fell instantly. "I'll come back again after a week or so with a long leave." I added.

And the dinner passed by with everyone discussing about the wedding. My wedding, I corrected myself. I felt strange somehow. I guess it'll take some time for me to get familiar with this feeling. I was not used to it, not yet!

"Mom, I'll wake Riddhima while leaving." I told mom when she made her way to her room for retiring after the Guptas left. "To lock the door." I added immediately.

"Good night aunty, Armaan." Riddhima wished us before she went upstairs to her room.

"Thank you Armaan." Mom told me kissing my forehead. "Just like that!" She added when I raised my brow. "Good night."

"Good night mom." I wished her back and went back to my room.

Laying down on the bed, I sighed and closed my eyes happily. It had been an eventful day. More than the past couple of months. I smiled recollecting the day's events. At the end of the day, I was happy. She was happy. Everyone was happy and that mattered the most to me. I set the alarm for 1 am and closed my eyes.

-----------

"Riddhima?" I pepped into her room. But I was surprised when she was still working on her laptop with the bed light on. I got ready to leave and then thought of waking her up to asked her to lock the door. "You are awake?" I asked her when she switched on the light.

"Umm Yeah. I work online for a company at night." She replied straightening her shirt. "You are leaving?" She asked.

"Yes, I am leaving." I replied and took a step ahead while she backed away against the wall.

I took one more step ahead. And I realized suddenly, that this was the first time we were in a close proximity when we were conscious of it. Last couple of times, when we had embraced each other it was due to emotional upheaval. Now that we were aware of the closeness, I felt strangely excited. Something like I feel every time I am up to doing something I like. It was weird.

"You'll come back?" She asked looking into my eyes, her eyes depicting the same thing I felt I had seen in her eyes at the airport. Something hit me somewhere. May be she was still insecure. I contemplated on what I should do to make it go away. I looked at my watch. I should leave immediately else I would miss the flight. I wished I had woken up early.

Taking a deep breath, I pulled her to me with my arms wrapped around her waist and back. She was stiff, I could feel that. But I just needed this before I left. Just to imbibe in me, her presence in my life. I tightened my hold on her hoping she would relax. Which she did partly, as I felt her hands hesitating at my back.

"I'll come back." I whispered in her ear. "For you." I added and felt her relax completely in my arms as she hugged me back. And then I relaxed too. After gently squeezing her in my arms, I drew back and stared into her eyes. They were calm and peaceful now, unlike I had found them a couple of minutes back. She smiled at me faintly and then looked away. I didn't unwrap my hands from around her. I still held her. I wondered if I could kiss her.

But from her gestures, I know, she was not ready for anything further. Not yet! So I just smiled at her and left her. "Till then, get ready to be my bride." I whispered again before leaving the room. When I was out of her room I stopped walking and turned around. As expected she peeped out of her room. Taking the chance, I placed a soft kiss on her cheek. She looked at me flustered and flushed.

"Lock the door after I left." I winked at her and ran downstairs when I heard the honking of the cab I had called for.


Sushmita

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